Understanding Russia: Why Punishments Might Backfire
By Steve Denning
In the documentary Fog of War, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued that America lost the Vietnam War in part because it failed to empathize with the enemy. This wasn’t about discovering sympathy for the Viet Cong but about understanding their real fears and motivations. The U.S. imagined that they were fighting in Vietnam to prevent the spread of global Communism, while the Vietnamese believed that they were fighting for their legitimate national independence. This tragic misunderstanding, which cost the lives of more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers and some 3 million Vietnamese, is still mind-boggling, particularly given Vietnam’s status today as a nation living peacefully and prosperously with the West.
Putin isn’t some diabolical master-spy at the center of an infinitely-sophisticated intelligence network, who is intent on destroying the world and who, like an evil villain in some James Bond movie, must be brought down and punished for his misdeeds, at which point, the world will magically return to its normal, peaceful state of friendly inter-state relations.
Instead, Putin is “the head of an increasingly disorganized and corrupt patronage system” which is failing in a centuries-long agenda in pursuit of derzhavnost, i.e. a Russian term meaning “both being a great power and being recognized as such by others.” Russia’s pursuit of derzhavnost existed before Putin and will continue after he is gone.
“In Russia’s immediate neighborhood, derzhavnost means an unquestioned sphere of influence, similar to America’s Monroe Doctrine. In dealing with other powerful states like the U.S., it implies respect, prestige, and peer recognition rolled into one—in other words, a seat at the table managing global affairs.”
Russia is not, as Western analysts sometimes imply, resurgent or gaining ascendancy. Instead, “the country is weak and probably declining.” That doesn’t make Russia any less dangerous. On the contrary: “in many ways, Russia is a threat precisely because its weakness undermines the geopolitical pursuit at the core of its foreign policy.”
Putin is a symptom, suggests Gunitsky, not the disease. “Russia’s drive for regaining derzhavnost and regional hegemony runs deeper than the changing qualities of its regime or the motivations of its rulers. Putin is himself a symptom of broader systemic forces that have dominated US-Russian relations since the Soviet collapse—and will continue to do so regardless of who succeeds him. It might be too late to save the relationship, but getting a better sense of what drives Russian politics requires moving beyond the pathologies of its leader and examining the broader context in which he operates.”
Putin isn’t even successful in advancing Russia’s overall agenda. Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election, its hackings and poisonings have paradoxically had the effect of hardening the West’s intent to prevent derzhavnost.
This helps explain why putting the principal focus on punishing Putin or Russia for the hackings and the poisonings is likely to backfire. Thus, the question as to who’s acting provocatively is answered very differently, depending on which country you’re in. “From Russia’s perspective, it’s not Russia but the West that is acting provocatively: from German unification on Western terms, to the expansion of NATO, to the support of anti-Russian movements in the Color Revolutions—just to name a few. Such encirclement is deeply disturbing to Russian elites, who have traditionally maintained a paranoid view about foreign threats around and inside their borders. (A paranoia abetted by a steady stream of invasions from the Mongols onward.)”
Russians also suspect hypocrisy. America condemns alleged Russia’s meddling in its 2016 presidential election as unethical and unacceptable. Yet at the same time, America asserts an unassailable moral right to intervene in the elections in Russia’s sphere of influence, allegedly in defense of democracy.
There is a psychological dimension of Russia’s geopolitical insecurity, writes Gunitsky. “The deep sense of humiliation, the dread of arrogant Westerners, the fear of NATO encirclement. They don’t show up in economic figures and military metrics, but they shape decision-making just as much as arms sales and trade deals.”
“Western analysts have focused on the motivations of Russia’s inscrutable president. And it’s easy to confuse Russia’s foreign policy with Putin’s foreign policy, given how much influence he exercises over it.”
Punishing Russia may merely aggravate the underlying problem. Putin is just the latest instance of “an essential and timeless element of Russia’s foreign policy, in which he is only the latest chapter.”
Thus “Putin has enjoyed apparent tactical successes in regional primacy and in interventions in foreign elections.” However, “his larger quest to re-establish Russia as a responsible and respected great power has been a complete failure. As a result, Russia is more insecure and paranoid than at any point since the Soviet collapse.” And more dangerous.
The West saw the Soviet collapse in 1991 as an unmitigated triumph and a breakthrough for global peace. In the West’s eyes, democracy had defeated communism. As a result, “the international system shifted from bipolarity to unipolarity.”
Russia saw things differently. The Soviet collapse “signaled the end of two very different struggles—an ideological struggle of communism against democracy, but also the end of Russian derzhavnost.” Russians generally welcomed the defeat of communism and most don’t want to see its return. Yet the loss of derzhavnost—the recognition of Russia as a major world player—was, and is, seen as an ongoing catastrophe. Its restoration of Russia’s status remains a geopolitical imperative, that will continue, long after Putin is gone.
“To Western ears, therefore, Putin’s lament that the Soviet collapse was the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’ sounds like alarming nostalgia for the Cold War. But Putin means something else: … the country had gone from a feared superpower to a disgraced has-been.”
This abrupt expansion of Western influence, as many Russian politicians see it, is a calamitous disruption to a centuries-long status quo that reaches back not just to Stalin but to Peter the Great… what looms foremost in the minds of its people—not just Putin and his officials, but ordinary Russian citizens—are the disastrous consequences of the Soviet collapse and the half-gleeful, half-contemptuous Western response that followed.
Russians may grumble at Putin’s policies, but even his domestic opponents praise his pursuit of Russian derzhavnost, and chafe at Western attempts to ignore this pursuit. It’s partly why Russian officials bristle at Western talk of ‘punishing’ Russia. You don’t punish your partners, after all, you punish disobedient children.
While none of this excuses Russia’s behavior, it helps explain why some U.S. approaches might be more effective than others.
U.S. policy-makers tend to assume that a democratized Russia will be automatically pro-Western, while an autocratic one would be inherently against the West. Not necessarily, suggests Gunitsky. A democratized Russia will continue to pursue derzhavnost. “Its foreign policy is characterized not by any particular ideology but by pragmatism and geopolitical paranoia. In many ways, it is not a revolutionary power but a deeply reactionary one. It will remain so even after Putin leaves the stage.”
Fifty years ago, the U.S. wasted immense financial and human resources on punishing the Viet Cong. Rather than focusing principally on punishing Putin or Russia for their past misdeeds, the West should focus on understanding Russia’s centuries-long pursuit of derzhavnost, figuring out which elements of that agenda could be considered legitimate, and establishing rules of the game going forward.
In effect, the leadership in the West should stop dreaming that a firmly-punished Russia, or a post-Putin Russia, or even a democratized Russia, will ever be the West’s genuine ally and friend. Instead, it should focus on helping Russia craft an economic and political path forward that will enable them to remove the perceived shame of being a disgraced has-been nation and to achieve a more appropriate status, along with the accompanying rules of the game that must be obeyed to retain that status.
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